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Christianity, Obedience, and Anger - a lesson from James 1:19-2:4

You don’t lose weight by reading the diet cookbook.

Bible Study Ideas and Commentary for James 1-2

Our passage contains some of the most well-known (and least-observed verses) in all of human writing, not just the Bible. James says things we all know. And yet, we tend not to do it, and we even excuse ourselves. Why is that? Why might we try harder, say, to lose weight than to do what the Bible says.

Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to anger. James 1:19

[Throughout the years, I have produced a newsletter for teachers to help with that week's Bible study. I'm going through the very slow process of online-ifying old lessons in order to easily reference past ideas and topics.]

Getting Started: Things to Think About

Teens and Mirrors and Selfies

Take a trip down memory lane (it might a longer trip for some of you than others). When you were a young adult, how much time did you spend in front of a mirror? Do you have any funny stories about getting ready? I had great hair as a young man; I would spend up to an hour getting it just right. I loved my hair. And I guess that's why God is taking it from me.

Teenagers today spend on average more than an hour a day on their appearance. But the millennial generation gets a lot more mileage out of their mirror time: the average millennial is on pace to take more than 25,000 selfies in their lifetime, and they spend more than an hour a week editing the selfies they post on social media. So let’s get obvious: why did we spend so much time in front of the mirror? And why do we edit photos before posting them?

To look as good as possible! So, when James talks about the person who looks in a mirror but doesn’t do anything about his appearance, we can all call that silly! But there are people who fail to take action on their appearance—we will talk about that inside!

Statistics on Anger

Here's another angle. The 2016 election made it undeniable that America has a major anger problem. You can find groups called “vegans outraged” (they found out that a vegan restaurant owner eats meat), “dancers outraged” (they found out that a dancer on a commercial wasn’t really a dancer), “gardeners outraged” (a developer bulldozed a community garden), and even “knitters outraged” (the US Olympic Committee wouldn’t let them use “knitters’ Olympics”). How many people in your workplace have an anger problem? (45% in a survey said they regularly lose their temper at work) How many of you get angry with your computer? (50% in a survey said they become verbally and physically violent when their computer malfunctions) It’s not just the US; In the UK, 32% say they have a close friend with an anger problem (of course, only 12% believe they have an anger problem), and 58% said that they did not know what to do to get help for their anger. This gets even more serious real quick—almost 10% of Americans have a history of impulsive anger and access to a firearm.

The purpose of this icebreaker would simply be to establish that we all know people with a temper. If you want to go on to the next page, you can talk about all the bad things anger does to us. The point would be that when James tells us “be slow to anger”, we shouldn’t argue with him.

This Week's Big Idea: How Anger Can Be Bad for Us

Doctors and psychologists can tell us all about anger. This is how they explain it (at least, this is my summary of everything I read):

when we are faced with some kind of threat, our amygdala releases neurotransmitting chemicals that prepare our body for action. The amygdala acts while the cerebral cortex (the reasoning part of the brain) is processing the threat, which is why people may say “I acted before thinking”. The amygdala reacts to all threats the same way—as if they are physical. Those chemicals cause our muscles to tense, our heart rate to increase, our blood pressure to rise, and our face to flush.

(That should make sense with respect to a physical threat or pain, but you may have to ask why the human body might react to disappointment or bad news or frustration in the same way -- as a threat.)

While that is going on, the cerebral cortex is analyzing the information and eventually tells the rest of the body what to do. If that signal is something like “that was a false alarm”, the person has to calm down. A person with good “anger management” skills will go through a series of relaxation exercises, helping the body to “wait out” the adrenaline rush without doing something physically violent. The challenge is that if too many chemicals/hormones get released into your system, your judgment can become clouded (it can be hard for people to recall details of a fight). Some amount of stimulation can be good for concentration; too much isn’t. Otherwise, reacting to anger is a learned behavior—children watch how their parents deal with anger and emulate that.

Make sense?

Doctors say that the average adult gets angry once a day, and they get “annoyed” three times a day (the difference is just in degree). The person who “reasons” emotionally rather than logically is more likely to misinterpret normal behavior as a threat and thus become angry. A person under stress is more likely to have a lower tolerance for frustration, leading to anger. A person with low regard for other people is more likely to become annoyed and thus angry.

Anger can result in our brain being overwhelmed with chemicals, hindering our ability to think clearly. Anger can double our heart rate and our blood pressure—angry people are significantly more likely to have heart problems. Because adrenaline is causing all of our muscles to tense, anger can result in severe headaches or migraines. Because the body is trying to get more oxygen to the brain, if you have a circulatory problem, anger can result in a stroke. Anger causes the release of hormones that, in too high a quantity, can harm the thyroid, suppress the immune system, and even disrupt blood sugar levels. None of this mentions how much harm an angry person can cause to those around him, not just physically but also verbally, resulting in damaged relationships.

While there are a number of coping mechanisms prescribed by medical professionals (take three deep breaths, leave the situation, change your environment, talk it out, etc.), it is becoming increasingly understood that “venting your anger” is a destructive technique that amounts to putting out a fire by pouring gasoline on it. (I.e. it doesn’t work.)

God designed anger response into human bodies. Jesus got angry when He saw the behavior of people in the temple. His anger gave Him more physical strength and endurance, louder voice, and clarity of action. But people have let their anger get out of control from the very beginning (see Cain and Abel). The word that James used for “anger” is orge; in verse 20, he clearly says he’s talking about human anger, not God’s righteous anger (like Jesus displayed). Human anger was the same in Paul’s day as it is today—a human emotion; it can be caused by jealousy; it is a part of outbursts; it causes us to treat people wrongly. In other words, all of the things we think about anger today were true of Paul’s day.

Our Context in James

It’s important to understand that James is not a moralist (a moralist gives you a list of rules for getting along better with people or being happier). Controlling our anger is not about keeping friends, but about living a life that God wants us to live. Think about the letter to this point: James has told those Christians not to be discouraged by trials (one such trial is economic disparity) and not to confuse a trial with a temptation (stay away from temptations!). What human response ties those situations together? Anger. Anger at the trial you face. Anger that other people have more wealth than you. Anger at being dragged into a sin. Anger that someone else fell into temptation. An environment of anger is the enemy of righteousness, and it makes following Jesus very difficult.

Rather than being a miscellaneous set of commands, these verses actually set up the rest of James’s letter. “Controlling the tongue” is one of James’s primary themes. Why? Because verbal anger is a lot more prevalent than physical anger, and all forms of anger can disrupt the spiritual life and destroy a church. (Another main theme—showing favoritism—also plays a big role in this transition. Economic disparity also results in that temptation.) In other words, make sure your class notes James’s phrases like “slow to speak” and “the implanted word” and “doer of the word” and realize that our words are one of the most important ways we obey God’s Word. Learn this lesson, and the rest of the letter will make a lot of sense.


Part 1: Heeding (James 1:19-21)

My dear brothers and sisters, understand this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to anger, for human anger does not accomplish God’s righteousness. Therefore, ridding yourselves of all moral filth and the evil that is so prevalent, humbly receive the implanted word, which is able to save your souls.

Will anyone argue with the first part of this passage? I think not! It is so obviously true that even non-Christians try to live by it! If for some reason someone doesn't understand this, ask what turns a problem in a marriage or workplace into a crisis. Often, it starts with a stressor—things are financially tight in the marriage, or maybe something went wrong with a project or customer. But rather than try to work through it, someone blurts out in anger. Once that has happened, how hard is it to accomplish something productive again?

On the one hand, this is rooted in the “word of truth” James just mentioned in the previous verse which led to our salvation. When we are saved, the fruit of the Spirit is supposed to start growing in our lives, right? Walk through the fruit of the Spirit (we just covered them)—in what ways can anger short circuit those individual fruits? It’s amazing how much that fruit are the opposite of anger! In fact, if I were to try to give the opposite of the fruit of the Spirit, I think I might choose the word “anger”! What James said and what Paul said are intimately tied together. Anger is a unique roadblock to spiritual growth.

But we are not only supposed to be quick to listen to the gospel. One of James’s primary motivators is how Christians are to treat one another, so I think James is also saying here that we are supposed to listen to one another. Counselors will tell you that one of the hardest steps in reconciliation is getting the two angry parties to listen to one another and not just shout at one another. In other words, James is telling us to listen to God (especially when we have asked for His help in dealing with trial and temptation) and also to one another when problems arise in our churches. James’s words mean exactly what we think they mean, and if we could do this, our lives would be changed.

But James also gives us the reason for such behavior: not just to be a better person (that’s “moralism”) but because we are a child of God. God’s anger burns against unrighteousness—injustice, abuse, poverty. But He always expresses His anger in ways that are right and meaningful. We tend to express our anger at the wrong time, in the wrong way, or completely out of perspective. In other words, when we act in anger, people are not able to see God’s righteous purposes for humanity. They just see a hot-tempered “Christian” behaving badly.

James’s conclusion? Rid ourselves of moral filth and prevalent evil. That includes anger. Ask how the world implicitly encourages us to deal with our anger today. “Go say ugly things anonymously online.” “Post something ugly on facebook.” “Yell at a customer service rep.” “Take up kickboxing.” Well, that advice is just part of the evil that in so prevalent in our world. We can go to the world for advice, or we can go to the Word. Should James have to tell us which is the place to go? Unfortunately, yes. Some people just don’t get it. God gives us the option of choosing life or choosing death. Why doesn’t everyone choose life? In this case, the choice is both metaphorical and literal. Metaphorical in the sense that when we speak truth in love, we “breathe life” into hurting lives; when we spew anger and hate, we kill hope and love. But literal in the sense that the same Word which tells us how to live is he Word which tells us how to be saved eternally. That separates what James says from “how to win friends and influence people” or other self-help drivel. Jesus didn’t just to make us better people—He came to save us.

Ask your group if anyone has a temper (which is just anger that they let get out of control). What are they going to do about it? To help or encourage, ask what they have done to keep their anger under control. A technique that works for one person may work for someone else.


Aside: A Word Study and Introspective on "Anger"

It’s no coincidence that the word often used to translate orge is “wrath”; wrath is an expression of anger, indignation, vexation, grief, bitterness, and fury. Wrath is on the list of “seven deadly sins”, telling us just how big a deal anger management has been throughout human history.

Anger can be godly when it is directed against sin and in response to the unjust suffering of people. Anger becomes a sin when it is motivated by pride, and especially when it is directed against a person rather than the sin. Uncontrolled anger is always a sin (and the Bible is filled with examples of the irreparable consequences of such). Anger that results in us saying anything unwholesome or that tears down someone else is always a sin. All forms of physical aggression motivated by anger are sin. (Violence in defense is motivated by something very different than anger.)

The biblical response to anger is kindness. We should never retaliate in anger, but rather we should always “leave room for God’s wrath”. When we know that anger is rising in us, we confess that acting on it would be a sin, and we ask God to give our calmer spirit power over our hot temper. Rather than react to our situation, we carefully plan to act. We speak honestly but gently. And we focus on the problem, not the person.

If we have a history of anger, we must go about the hard process of confessing that to the people we have hurt and asking for their forgiveness. Additionally, we enlist the help of friends to watch us for our temper.


Part 2: Doing (James 1:22-25)

But be doers of the word and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves. Because if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like someone looking at his own face in a mirror. For he looks at himself, goes away, and immediately forgets what kind of person he was. But the one who looks intently into the perfect law of freedom and perseveres in it, and is not a forgetful hearer but a doer who works —this person will be blessed in what he does.

James goes from obvious to even more obvious, and yet these are some of the most compelling verses in the entire Bible because they are so simple and yet we have such a hard time doing them. What is more, these verses apply to every area of life, which is why even non-Christians know them in some form or another.

Ask your group to share areas in life where they know what they’re supposed to do, but they just don’t do it. To follow a common theme in this post, we can choose diet and exercise. Look up a “couch to 5k” program online (or something like that that interests you). It gives you a plan (like 9 weeks) which, if you follow it carefully, will have you running a 5k even if you’ve never run before. But guess what—if you skip some of those weeks, or ignore the nutrition plan that goes with it, it won’t work. If you do all of the steps, you will get the results. The fitness craze has turned James’s ideas into a major business (see below). But it’s even more important for us to put the Bible to work in our lives. We’ve established how silly it is for someone to look at himself in a mirror and do nothing to fix a blemish. (James uses the phrase “forgets what kind of person he was” to make this illustration easier to apply to the Christian life: it’s not just about what we look like, it’s about who we are.)

Here’s where James makes an oxymoronic statement: the person who is absolutely faithful to keep the law . . . is free This is the same thing Paul was saying to the Galatians. The Judaizers wanted to enslave the Galatians to the old law. But Jesus came to give us a new law . . . of freedom. How can a law bring freedom? Because we’re talking about the gospel. Paul focused on the idea that the Spirit transforms the believer from the inside, giving them freedom to act however they see fit, but it should always be within the Spirit’s control. James says the same thing, but he focuses on the “word which has been implanted”. Remember, Paul was writing with a Gentile audience in mind; James wrote to a Jewish audience. They’re saying the same things using different images.

It does seem that James is referring to a “law” that can govern our behavior, so to him, the gospel is more than “how to be saved” but also “how to live for Jesus”. However, the Gospels hadn’t been printed yet, so what rules are he talking about? Even though they might not have had a complete “Sermon on the Mount”, they would still have had Jesus’ sayings. James could be talking about something as simple as “love your neighbor as yourself” or “do unto others . . .” We’ve said before that if we could just live by those simple rules, we would be well on our way to being faithful Christ followers. Not that we need a reason, but James then says that we would be blessed if we lived that way. Have you ever been blessed by living according to the gospel standards? Of course you have!

End this section by taking a survey about the areas of life your group has the most discipline in. How can they use their success in those areas to improve other areas—like Christian living (prayer, Bible reading, obedience to God, controlling anger, etc.)? Tell them they need to make a plan they can follow, give themselves measurable steps they can track.


Aside: People Who Fail to Act on Their Reflection

I mentioned the number of people who fuss for long periods of time over their appearance. But there is also a large number of people who look at themselves in the mirror and do not do anything about it. And no, I’m not talking about the rebellious teenager who wants to look sloppy (if they thought they looked too nice, they would muss themselves up, right?). Rather, I’m talking about the rather large portion of our population with self-image issues. Your class might find it interesting that men look at themselves in a mirror more often than women do (though they spend less time looking), but not all of those glances are positive. Most often this has to do with the size of our stomach (or perhaps our thinning hair). While some people are motivated by that to diet or exercise, many people are simply defeated by it. Rather than act on the size of their stomach, they just worry if it’s gotten any bigger. Ask why people do that. Sometimes they just don’t care. More often, they don’t really think they can do anything about it. Both situations are the kinds of things James talks about in our passage. When we read the Bible and God points out some sin in our life (like, for example, anger), we may be tempted to ignore it, or we may decide that there’s nothing we can do about it. Find a loving way to say “That’s wrong!” Remember what James has said before: we need to ask God for help, and then we need to believe that God will help see us through it. God will not leave us in our sin. We must not ignore the Spirit’s prodding.


Part 3: Loving (James 1:26-2:4)

If anyone thinks he is religious without controlling his tongue, his religion is useless and he deceives himself. Pure and undefiled religion before God the Father is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself unstained from the world. My brothers and sisters, do not show favoritism as you hold on to the faith in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ. For if someone comes into your meeting wearing a gold ring and dressed in fine clothes, and a poor person dressed in filthy clothes also comes in, if you look with favor on the one wearing the fine clothes and say, “Sit here in a good place,” and yet you say to the poor person, “Stand over there,” or “Sit here on the floor by my footstool,” haven’t you made distinctions among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts?

I’m super-sad they smashed all of this into one section! We will talk about “controlling the tongue” again in a few weeks, so you can skim over this. The amazing comment about “pure religion” ties directly to favoritism; if we insist on having religious guidelines (“religion” being the manmade part of the Christian identity), then we need to focus on caring for the helpless. (Feel free to bring up the statistics on orphans from when we talked about adoption.) Unfortunately, most people in our world worry about doing nice things for people who can “pay us back”. Our acts of service come with an agenda. That’s not how it should be! Jesus did not come for the powerful rabbis; He came for the helpless sick and demon-possessed, people who could do nothing for Him in return (like widows and orphans)!

Earlier, I recommended that you discuss how anger goes against the fruit of the Spirit. It was pretty obvious. It is less obvious how favoritism goes against the fruit of the Spirit. (I guess that’s why Christians are less worried about favoritism than anger?) Here’s the thing: the action of anger is easily seen to be against the fruit of the Spirit. So it’s obvious. But it’s the motivation behind favoritism that’s the problem, which is not so obvious. What motivates favoritism.

I’m going to recommend saving the last verse (“judges with evil thoughts”) for next week to add some flavor to that lesson.

In summary, understand that the Christian life is both about listening and doing. We must listen to God’s Word and Spirit to know what God wants us to do, then we must do it. Share strategies they’ve used to both listen and obey.


The Modern Workout Craze and James

James’s letter is one of the most influential writings in history. But now his ideas are so commonplace that most people don’t even notice. To finish off my diet and exercise theme, here are some great “posters” that you might see at a gym:

  • “The best time to start was yesterday. The next best time is right now.”

  • “The key to success is keeping company with people who uplift you, whose presence calls forth your best.”

  • “You’re only one workout away from a good mood.”

  • “You can’t spell challenge without change.”

  • “Do something today that your future self will thank you for.”

  • “The first step to getting anywhere is deciding you don’t want to stay where you are.”

  • “Change nothing and nothing changes.”

  • “No matter how slow you go you are still lapping everyone on the couch.”

  • “When you feel like quitting remember why you started.”

  • “Results happen over time, not overnight.”

  • “If you want something you’ve never had, you must do something you’ve never done.”

  • “It’s not going to be easy, but it is going to be worth it.”

If people can tie this attitude to success in the gym, why can’t we all tie it to growth in our walk with Jesus? The habits are even easier (i.e. you don’t need to go to a gym) and the payouts are even greater. Encourage one another to be “inspired” to a greater Christian life.


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